Digital World: Trying to catch up with Apple

Apple is even on the mind of the soon-to-be-retired Bill Gates.

pioneer88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy )
pioneer88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy )
You'd think that with all the hard work folks in the electronics industry put in during November and December, they'd be entitled to a couple of months off - to rest, restock and count their Christmas earnings. But no: Come the beginning of January, electronics biz folk hit the road, en route to Las Vegas - for the Consumer Electronics Show, the showcase of what's up-and-coming in the industry, and what companies are going to be promoting during the end-of-year buying season, 10 months from now. In the computer journalism biz, it's a long-standing tradition for newspapers and Web sites to send their star reports to CES to report firsthand on the doings there. Unfortunately for me, I couldn't talk anyone into paying my way to the show - probably because of that gambling problem I had a few years ago (I obsessively watched the Saturday night lotto draw on TV, although I was too cheap to buy a ticket). I guess they didn't trust me in Las Vegas, so I had to follow coverage over the Internet, through the hundreds of Web sites and blogs that presented everything there was to see. CES, which ran January 7-10, is huge; more than 2,500 exhibitors had booths showing off their latest and greatest at this year's show. Not all the exhibitors had stuff that was particularly noteworthy. There were, for example, a slew of Chinese companies with variations on the name "Shenzhen" that seemed to be in the battery business. Some were only peripherally connected to the electronics business. Home décor company Prosperity Tree ( was selling the iSeat, which provides a resting place for iPods or cellphones, "perfect for charging, listening to music, viewing photos and having a designated 'seat' for your electronic devices for both home and office." There were the usual Far Eastern "knockoff" makers ( - not that there's anything wrong with that. And then there was the truly, shall we say, "different," like the motorized iShoes (, which for $500 will let you "walk" around town for three hours at a time without actually having to walk. But looking over the list of CES exhibitors and checking out as many of their Web sites as I could, it was clear that lots of companies were displaying new, cutting-edge technologies and devices. The wireless headphones from Skullcandy ( - a company whose headphones and ear buds are really second to none - lets you insert an SD card into the headphones to listen to music, dispensing with the need for a device to attach the headphones to. Each year, there is a zeitgeist at CES - a trend, acknowledged or subliminal - that drives many of the innovative products on display. This year, that zeitgeist was provided by Apple. So many of the products had peripherals for Apple devices, or were inspired by Apple (positively or negatively), that it must have been embarrassing for companies that saw themselves as industry leaders. Of course, standard items are standard items, and many of the products shown at CES were perennials, like the aforementioned batteries or cables. But when it came to innovations, whether in technology or form, Apple's influence - sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle - could be seen in many of the new products on display. There were plenty of offerings for add-ons to enhance iPods, for example. Lots of companies with the letter "i" as an appendage -,, - all produce docks, speakers or cases for iPods. To quote The New York Times, which estimates that the iPod peripheral business will reach some $1 billion in 2008 - nearly double that in 2007 - "even proud Sony, which has failed to turn its Walkman franchise into a significant MP3 player business, is now putting iPod docks on its home products (" When you have a billion-dollar business at stake, it makes sense that companies will rush to produce items to get in on the gravy train. Catering to iPod users has thus become a major subset of the consumer electronics business, so it makes sense that even a venerable veteran like car stereo manufacturer Alpine ( is making car radios with iPod docking stations ( Then there's the "zeitgeist" part - where products are inspired by Apple offerings even if they have nothing to do with Macs, iPods or iPhones. Take, for example, the Sooloos Music Streamer ( It's a pricey ($12,000) music storage and wireless streaming base. What's the Apple connection? Well, you have to see it to believe it (luckily, the link has a photo); the Sooloos system look a whole lot like an iMac. Coincidence? Are there any in life - really? And the products offered by this company (, on display at CES, have nothing to do with computers or Apple - except the "i" in the name. Apple is even on the mind of the soon-to-be-retired Bill Gates; check out this interview he did with tech blog Gizmodo ( and especially what he has to say about the relationship between Microsoft and Apple. (Also check out what the Gizmodo people did for laughs at CES, at And of course, there are the inevitable rip-offs of Apple's newest sweep-the-world invention - the iPhone. Cellphones, of course, are among the hottest consumer items around, and cheap. Far Eastern knockoffs are not acceptable substitutes - meaning that the world's best and brightest consumer electronics manufacturers are the ones making the phones. And with the success of the iPhone, especially the touch screen part, a slew of manufacturers are coming out with rivals to the Apple product (, hoping to appeal to customers who have not bought an iPhone for various reasons - whether price or contractual commitment - but still want one. The problem with the iPhone, according to many, is that you have to be a customer of a specific service carrier (AT&T in the US) in order to use it (unless you're willing to hack it, possibly jeopardizing your warranty). The wannabe iPhones promise to be more flexible, going places where the iPhone can't. Does that mean that next year's CES zeitgeist will be different - dominated by, say, Sony? I highly doubt it. Macworld 2008 opens this week (, and is often the venue for surprising new product announcements by Apple. There'll be yet more Apple zeitgeist next year, you can count on it - these other guys are always playing catch-up, it seems.